Keep an eye on the IRS

For Republicans, the explosive leak revealing that the U.S. government tracks all electronic communication was certainly an ill-timed bummer. Indeed, the story informs our enemies and threatens our national security, and it shocked more than a few people to learn how closely and easily we are monitored. But the truth is, it buried a perfectly good scandal at the Internal Revenue Service — at least for now.

As talk at the water cooler, soccer bleachers and church parking lot turned solely to the news the National Security Agency (NSA) is amassing data from all of our emails, phone calls, online videos, etc., in its efforts to track terrorists, some conservatives rushed to explain that the unfair targeting of conservative groups by the IRS was different and definitely worse. It’s not clear who heard them.

Conservative Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said Sunday that conservatives would make a “huge mistake” criticizing the NSA, and that it was “totally different” from the scrutinizing of Tea Party groups by the IRS. Washington Post opinion writer Ed Rogers urged the party to adopt a clear response, admitting he didn’t know what Republicans were objecting to. “At times we seem to just be screaming about the fact that we know Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump adds to legal team after attacks on Mueller Stock market is in an election year: Will your vote impact your money? Trump will perpetuate bailouts by signing bank reform bill MORE and the Democrats would be screaming if it had been a Republican in the White House when these programs were revealed. We can fairly make the point about the Democrats’ hypocrisy on this issue, but then we need to either move on or clearly state our objection — if we have one — to the underlying policy.” The Post’s Marc Thiessen wrote “Unfortunately, some on the right are joining the cacophony of condemnation from The New York Times and MSNBC. The programs exposed in these leaks did not begin on Barack Obama’s watch. When Obama continues a Bush-era counterterrorism policy, it is not an outrage — it is a victory.”

On Monday, as the world tuned in to videos of Edward Snowden revealing himself as the leaker, the Republican National Committee made no statements about the NSA’s PRISM program but released a video “keeping pressure on the Obama administration over the IRS scandal.” The RNC also sent out a list of unanswered questions about the investigation that have yet to be answered. 

Yet the headline of the week on the IRS scandal is that House Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released testimony from a “conservative Republican” stationed in the Cincinnati office who had told committee staff he had no reason to believe the White House was involved or that additional screening by Cincinnati IRS staff was politically motivated. “Based on everything I have seen, the case is solved,” Cummings said. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight Committee, fired back that Cummings’s “push to release entire transcripts from witness interviews while the investigation remains active was reckless and threatened to undermine the integrity of the committee’s investigation” after Cummings threatened to release the entire collection of transcripts from committee interviews by the end of this week if Issa does not.

Six congressional committees, as well as the Department of Justice and the inspector general of the IRS, are investigating the agency’s conduct. It is scandalous, whether intentional or accidental, and must be corrected. The story of the legal NSA program, neither warrantless nor wiretapping, is not a scandal. In the resulting liberal/libertarian furor, there isn’t likely to be even a small dent made in the government’s surveillance capability. 

Republicans should resist the temptation to talk about hypocrisy, thereby extending the debate over the PRISM program they largely agree with. Meanwhile, they must figure out where their IRS investigation is going. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.